COVID-19 made college life extremely difficult for students in 2020. For AJ Lando, it was merely the rotten cherry on top of the neglected, fly-infested sundae that had become her life.
While most college students spent their time in quarantine studying or maintaining some semblance of a social life, AJ was caring for her cancer-ridden mother by herself. In November of 2019, then 55-year-old Renee Lando was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next three years, Renee would have two surgeries, develop blood clots in her lungs, go into septic shock on three different occasions, and nearly die alone in a closet.
AJ, 19, became her mother’s full-time primary caretaker while also trying to balance school and her own mental health. For three years, AJ would support her mother almost entirely by herself, in their home in Ringwood, New Jersey.
When do you think your problems became noticeably overwhelming?
My mom had gotten diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2019. She went through chemotherapy from November to March of 2020. It was scary, because chemotherapy wasn’t the solution; the doctors said it would only prevent the spread of the cancer. So, after all the treatments, she’d still have cancer, and would need surgery.
Her chemotherapy treatments finished on March 10 — I remember that exact date. It was a Tuesday, the week COVID shut everything down. After mom was able to come home, all we could do was wait for her surgery to happen. COVID interrupted so many health services, so I ended up having to act as her nurse, chauffeur, chef, therapist. At the same time, my school work became harder because of the online switch. And I felt overwhelmed and alone. My brother, Nick, was in Massachusetts at the time and couldn’t leave his home. My parents are divorced, so my dad, Frank, was also out of the picture.
I was getting so stressed, but everything kept happening and I didn’t have time to properly process my feelings.
Was there a point where you felt too stressed, like you couldn’t manage?
After her chemotherapy, she had to get a double mastectomy in May of 2020, which is a huge operation. I can’t stress enough how major the operation is. And because it happened during the initial stages of lockdown, she wasn’t able to stay in the hospital. She went home the same day and I wasn’t prepared for the assistance she needed.
Then, she developed a case of pulmonary embolism [blood clots] in her lungs. Later that August, she went into septic shock. My mom had gone into a closet and ended up falling. It triggered a reaction in her body and for the next eight hours, she slipped in and out of consciousness.
I was at work when I got the call, and at that moment, I felt so helpless and scared. She was taken to the hospital, and for the next week, I was left alone with her. Doctors and nurses didn’t give me updates. I didn’t have any information. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Between the infections, medications and cancer, her brain functions started to slip. My mom had almost died and was mentally impaired. I couldn’t understand her anymore. I was terrified and alone. My anxiety was at its absolute worst and the isolation was overwhelming. But eventually, my mom got better.
How have the two of you managed in recent months, now that you’re back in New Paltz and she’s in New Jersey? Has the distance made things difficult?
My mom has slowly recovered in the past year and a half. She takes medicine for her pulmonary embolism and will for the rest of her life. But we’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been able to return to school, which I’m so grateful for. I can see my friends in person now.
Though every now and then, I do feel a little guilty. I’m away at New Paltz and finally having fun again. But, my mom still isn’t 100% healthy. I worry about her and how I’m not there physically for her. I do have scheduled video calls with her and my brother now, so that helps a little.
What got you through it all?
Looking back, I’m not too sure how I managed to get through it initially. I mean, I was only 19 years old at the time. I think the speed at which everything happened helped. Like I said, I wasn’t able to process anything really. Because of COVID, I couldn’t see my friends. Even with precautions, my mom was high-risk. I couldn’t endanger her more. But as things kept happening to my mom, I would simply remember that we had just gone through a hardship. If we handled one obstacle, why not another?